Article, Author's Notes

Sacajawea Author's Note

  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

AUTHOR'S NOTE ON SACAJAWEA

I don't recall exactly when I first began reading about Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery, but I suspect that it was in fourth grade. My teacher, Miss McTygue, was one of those rare individuals who knew how to recognize what a child needs and then give it to them. In my case, part of what I needed was books — lots of them! Somehow I ended up with a copy of an abridgement of their famous journey, edited by Bernard DeVoto. That book stayed with me, on one of the constantly multiplying bookshelves in my room, read and reread, until I went off to college. But it didn't end my interest in the story.

A big part of my fascination was because of the part played in it by Sacajawea. First, I suppose, it was because she was such a young person and yet showed such courage and fortitude. She even carried her little baby, Jean Baptiste, "Pomp," with her the whole way and back! Second, she was Indian. And that was part of my own heritage, a part that I knew little about as a child, but a part that grew in importance for me the more I came into contact with American Indian elders.

As I continued to read about the Corps of Discovery and Sacajawea, I learned more that fascinated me. At a time when Europeans already had a long history of violent contact with Native people, Lewis and Clark made most of their journey in peace. And of those in their small party, a number of their men were the children of Native American mothers and white fathers, people who would today be viewed as American Indians themselves. The most outstanding of them was George Drouillard, who was of Shawnee blood, the best sign — language talker, hunter, and scout in that company of seasoned frontiersmen. Then there was the character of York, a man born a slave and the personal servant of William Clark. York, though, was treated and acted as an equal throughout the entire journey. When they had an important decision to make, everyone (including York and Sacajawea) was allowed to vote on it! In some ways, their epic and highly democratic experience showed the best of what might become of this new nation of the United States. I first thought about writing something about the Lewis and Clark expedition over 20 years ago, but I knew I didn't know enough.

Over the years, I found myself traveling parts of the Lewis and Clark Trail, putting my hands in the river where they set out from St. Louis, viewing the Great Falls of Montana, standing by the same Pacific Ocean they saw with such joy. I read more books — including all of the volumes published of the Journals of Lewis and Clark as brilliantly edited and annotated by Gary E. Moulton. (Anyone really interested in Lewis and Clark MUST do two things: read Moulton's series The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and subscribe to the incredible magazine published by the Lewis and Clark Trail Association, We Proceeded On.)  I also met Indian and non — Indian people who shared their knowledge with me — including such generous folks as Eileen Chabonneau, a descendant of the same family as Sacajawea's husband; Old Charbonneau and Wayland Large, the Tribal Historian of the Wind River Shoshone in Wyoming, Sacajawea's people.  Finally, urged on by my very persistent editor at Harcourt, Paula Wiseman, I thought I knew enough to begin.

I often find myself unsatisfied with books "about" Indians because they are written from the viewpoint of non — Indians. Even some books that are written in a first — person voice with a supposedly Indian narrator sound like a non — Indian being a ventriloquist (with the "Indian" as the dummy!). So I knew that I wanted to give an Indian perspective on Lewis and Clark.
I decided to write the book in two voices because it seemed to me that it takes more than one voice to tell a story such as this. It is not just an Indian story just as it is not just a European — American story. My hope was to do some justice to both points of view. Further, I wanted my two narrators to have enough perspective to be able to appreciate what they had been through. So I had it take place several years after their return. Since Clark and Sacajawea grew so close on the journey (he became like a second father or a beloved uncle to her), who else would those voices be, but Clark and Sacajawea?  What would be a logical reason for telling the story? It is historical fact that Clark invited Sacajawea and her family to visit him in St. Louis and that they did make that journey. Apparently, Lewis became the guardian of Pomp and sent him to school. So I imagined the quite likely scenario of Pomp asking them to tell him about the journey he took part in when he was only a little baby.

I decided to make the chapters reflect the viewpoint and world of the two characters even more by having Clark's begin with an actual quote from the Journals of Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea's sections begin with a traditional story, one that she might have known from her own Shoshone heritage or learned along the way. Though my book would be a novel, I kept absolutely to the events and the time frame of the story. There are no invented incidents and even the dialogue is drawn in many cases from the written journals.
And that is how it began. The rest, more or less, is history.

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  • Subjects:
    Challenges and Overcoming Obstacles, Early Exploration and Settlements, Discovery and Learning, Westward Exploration and Expansion, Cooperation and Teamwork, Courage, Bravery, Heroism, Native American, Historic Figures, Social Studies through Literature, Women's History and Experience, Leadership, Resourcefulness, Understanding Self and Others
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